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Ohio State vs. Michigan

By Tony Gerdeman

Saturday will mark the 102nd edition of the greatest day in sports. It’s more important than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Olympics, and ninety-four times grander than Michigan State and Penn State’s fabricated battle for the Land Grant Trophy.

Nothing of Paul Bunyan’s is involved. There are no bells. No cups. No buckets. No jugs—little, brown or otherwise.

What is involved, however, are winners and losers. Championships and bragging rights. Pride and prejudice. And every last bit of it is justified.

This game has been uninterrupted since 1918. That is 87 consecutive games of neighbor versus neighbor. Brother versus brother. And lawless versus lawful.

The Wolverines lead the overall series, which began in 1897, 57-38-6. However, since 1961, the series stands even at 26-26-2.

Bringing those numbers to the present-day, since Jim Tressel has arrived at Ohio State in 2001, the Buckeyes are 3-1 against the Wolverines. In those four games, the winner has done each of the following: rushed for more yards; passed for fewer yards; won the turnover battle; and been the more penalized team (in terms of yardage).

Winning the fourth category mentioned may not be crucial on Saturday. The other three, however, will tell you the outcome of the game without even knowing the score.

When Michigan Has The Ball

In overly simplistic analysis, the Wolverines will either run the ball, or throw it to Jason Avant.

In terms of running the ball, the Wolverines have six different guys that can be productive carrying the ball. In fact, four of their running backs have rushed for over 90 yards in a game this season. The other two guys to keep an eye on are receivers Antonio Bass and Steve Breaston. Both have been lined up at quarterback this season, and Bass has even completed a 13 yard pass from there.

Ohio State linebackers A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel are going to be very busy on Saturday. The bulk of the carries for Michigan will go to Michael Hart and Kevin Grady. Neither running back has been above average this year, but Hart has been battling injuries and Grady is only a freshman.

The Ohio State defense had great success against Hart last year, holding him to 61 yards on 18 carries. They seemed to have solved him last year and made him pedestrian. This year if they solve him again, Kevin Grady will give them another problem to worry about. Grady is basically a 5’9” Charles Barkley in shoulder pads. He’s a tough guy to bring down, but he doesn’t exactly avoid contact, as his 4.1 yards per carry average attests.

Neither Hart nor Grady are breakaway threats, but they have a way of getting out of ankle tackles. If the Ohio State defenders stay within their assignments, Michigan should not be able to sustain a quality running game.

The Michigan offensive line is laden with seniors. Seniors that don’t want to leave school 1-3 against Ohio State. Don’t think that that gives them an advantage though, because every Ohio State – Michigan game is its own universe, separate from any before it.

If the Ohio State defensive line plays their best game, they can dictate what happens. If there is no running game for Michigan, and Henne is forced to throw all day, that could pose some problems for the Wolverines.

Every snap of the ball will result in destruction at the line of scrimmage; it will be up to Wolverine quarterback Chad Henne to steer clear of it. Michigan has given up 19 sacks on the season, so it’s not like Henne is Fort Knox back there.

When given time to throw, Henne looks for receiver Jason Avant. Avant has 70 catches for 900 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. His reception total represents 36% of all completions for the Wolverines. The next most popular receiver for Henne is freshman Mario Manningham, with 20 receptions. Steve Breaston only has 18 catches, but he is most definitely due.

Jason Avant won’t really do much with the football, other than catch it. But no matter where it is, he’ll catch it. Do not expect “third down Braylonitis” to creep up on Avant. If the ball is near him, he will find a way to get to it.

As is his custom, Chad Henne will throw some jump balls. Whoever is defending the play will need to be ready to out-jump, out-position, and out-effort Avant for the ball. Ashton Youboty did this very well against Braylon Edwards last year. A similar effort this year could be enough to seal the win for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State cornerback Tyler Everett has gotten healthy at the right time, and showed last week that he is back to early season form. Expect the safety trio of Nate Salley, Donte Whitner, and Brandon Mitchell to make a few Michigan receivers pay for Henne’s historically errant throws.

A favorite play of Michigan’s is a basic quick pass outside when the corner is playing way off in which the receiver will just power forward for seven or eight yards, leaving an easy second or third down. One of the Buckeyes’ strengths is open-field tackling, so there shouldn’t be any big gains on those plays, but they do help keep drives alive.

Hawk, Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter are going to have to keep an eye on the passing game as well. Fans of Michigan's opponents all kick the floor and smash whatever is smashable when watching Michigan pull off their usual running back screen or play action rollout to the tight end. For the opposition there are few things in football worse than watching a Michigan tight end going against the flow of the defense alone and unimpeded. Especially on 3rd and 8.

Michigan doesn’t really come out and try to trick you on offense, they just come out and try to beat you—like a good Big Ten team should.

The one area that could blow this game open for either side is the special teams. Michigan fields one of the two best kick returners in the conference in Steve Breaston. Breaston averages 27 yards per kickoff return, including a touchdown, and 13 yards per punt return. He is nearly as valuable for Michigan as Ted Ginn is for Ohio State.

However, if the weather holds out, Breaston may not get any chances to return a kickoff, as Josh Huston has only had 19 of his 64 kickoffs returned on the season.

Michigan place-kicker Garrett Rivas has been up and down this year. He has been mostly up, but when he’s down, he takes no prisoners. He has missed two extra points on the season and has missed field goals of 27 and 34 yards.

Punter Ryan Ross isn’t bad, but his value this week will be during kickoffs. He has put 35 of his 59 kicks into the end zone. Depending on the weather, they may just try to reach the end zone on their kickoff(s), rather than messing around with a pooch kick or a squib kick, or something Northwesterny like that.

When Ohio State Has The Ball

If Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith is expecting the same Michigan defense that he saw last year, then he will be sorely (and I do mean “sorely”) mistaken. This is a defense that has gotten faster at just about every position, even though not a lot of names have changed.

Gone are the lumbering safeties and…well, mainly just the lumbering safety.

The Wolverines have only sacked the opposing quarterback 18 times on the season, so Troy Smith should once again have enough time to get rid of the ball, or run with it before the defense turns around.

The Michigan defense has done a much better job against running quarterbacks this year, but of course they’ve only played two. The first time was against Drew Stanton and Michigan State, and in that game, John L. Smith chose to keep Stanton in the pocket, even though it was Stanton’s running in 2004 that was making Michigan look like a Pac 10 defense. The second time they faced a running quarterback was against Penn State. Michael Robinson carried the ball 17 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns. The key stat, however, is that Robinson’s long carry was only 10 yards. They have most definitely improved in this area.

It is no secret that Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel plans on establishing the run. It is the most assured way to win this game. Of course, it is easier said than done.

Michigan defensive tackle Gabe Watson has finally started living up to the hype that was given him at an early age. He is an imposing force in the middle, and even when he isn’t getting a good push up front, he’s still going to be in somebody’s way.

Buckeye running back Antonio Pittman is very capable of carrying the offense on his back. When he has gotten 18 or more carries, the Buckeyes are 7-0. For the season, he is averaging 111 yards rushing per game with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. That 5.6 yard average should not be ignored. In Eddie George’s junior year, which saw him rush for over 1,400 yards, he only averaged 5.2 yards per carry. George’s Heisman winning senior year saw him average 5.9 yards per carry. Furthermore, in Keith Byars’ 1,700 yard season, he only averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Pittman is doing things as a sophomore that very few Buckeyes have ever done. Do not overlook him. If he carries the Buckeyes to a victory, he will forever be remembered in Buckeye lore.

Fortunately for Michigan, they haven’t had a group of linebackers like this for a very long time. They are fast, athletic, and extremely aggressive. Inside linebacker David Harris is the leading tackler, averaging eight tackles per game. Outside linebacker Prescott Burgess has also developed into a very good linebacker—just like Jim Tressel told him he would.

They will meet up with Pittman and Smith all day long, and they won’t let up.

The playmaker of the front seven is rush linebacker Lamarr Woodley. He has 14 tackles for loss and five sacks on the season. Don’t be surprised to see offensive tackles Kirk Barton, Doug Datish and Alex Boone get a little help with Woodley at times.

When given time, Troy Smith will be facing an experienced, yet unspectacular secondary. Michigan is the 40th ranked pass defense in the country, allowing 203 yards passing per game. That is to be expected, however, as most teams have to pass against the Wolverines to catch up.

It will be interesting to see how well the safeties do on the Buckeye slot receivers. There will be quite a bit of four wide for the Buckeyes, and they will run and throw out of it. Anthony Gonzalez will not catch Michigan napping this year; of course they also won’t be putting a 6’4” 225 pound safety that runs a 4.7 on him either. Still, if you put a linebacker on him, you will lose.

If the Buckeyes can run the ball, expect their best passing plays to come via the play action. It remains to be seen, however, if they’ll be able to run.

In a game as evenly matched as this one, it may come down to the hidden yardage with the special teams. Ohio State usually has the advantage in this one, but Michigan isn’t far behind. One thing to keep an eye one, however, is that Michigan is 90th in kickoff return coverage. So that basically means if Ross doesn’t get the ball deep enough into the end zone, there could be some fireworks.

The special teams may also cost their own teams some points on Saturday. If it’s cold, windy and raining, expect some missed kicks from both sides.

How It’ll End Up

I want you to print out this preview, crumple up the pages and throw it away, because it means nothing.

We can sit here and tell you who should win this battle and who should win that battle, but it just doesn’t work like that.

This is Ohio State – Michigan. If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be the greatest rivalry in all of sports.

So here’s what you can expect to see, keeping in mind that it’s difficult to explain the unexplainable:

The weather will neutralize the talent advantage for the Buckeyes.

Antonio Pittman will outrush Michael Hart, but neither will rush for 100 yards.

Jason Avant will lead Michigan in receiving for the 11th straight game, and he’ll find the end zone somewhere in there as well.

Troy Smith will play well, but Chad Henne will play the game of his life. Ohio State will drop a couple of sure interceptions, and Michigan will capitalize on the missed opportunities.

The Wolverines will have a timely punt return, a timely halfback screen, and a timely turnover. And there is most definitely something to be said for playing at home.

They will have earned their breaks, and, unfortunately, they will make the most of them.

Michigan 24 – Ohio State 20

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